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Ask Ariely: On Fun Money, Santa, and Feeling Old

Jun 20

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

My parents, both over 60, have retired from careers in government service, with good retirement funds plus a decent monthly pension. When they were young, they faced a lot of financial difficulties, so over the years, they have turned into misers. They don’t go on holidays, dine out or indulge in any way; they buy substandard groceries, take public transportation to save on gas and fret over even petty expenses. I want them to enjoy the rest of their lives without such worries. What should I do to change their behavior regarding money.

—Vivek

Your parents’ problem comes bundled with substantial benefits. Saving early in life and living modestly are key to a healthy retirement, and I wish that more people in the U.S. behaved this way. You probably owe much of your own financial well-being and your mind-set toward money to this exemplary behavior.

That said, now that your parents are comfortable, it would be good if they were able to enjoy life to a higher degree. If I were you, I would sit with them and go over their monthly balance sheet to try to figure out how much money is coming in every month and how much they are spending on necessities.

With these numbers in hand, I would look at how much extra income they have every month—and call these funds “fun money.” Next, I would get them two prepaid debit cards and set up an automatic monthly transfer of the fun money from their checking account to the cards. In this way, the fun money will be set aside from the beginning, with a different physical identity and declared purpose—a little like chips in a casino. If you want to further drive the point home, put large red stickers on the cards and write “Fun” on them.

Finally, for the first few months, you could go over the statements with them to make sure that they are indeed spending the money in ways that make them happy.

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Dear Dan,

Do you think it’s acceptable for parents (and society in general) to lie to young children about the existence of Santa? I don’t, but I seem to be in the minority.

—Charlotte

My research center recently completed a documentary on dishonesty in which we interviewed individuals who had committed misdeeds, from insider trading to doping to infidelity. Many people, we found, take one wrong step, then rationalize it, then take another—and soon they’re on a slippery slope.

All of which is to say: It is wrong to lie to kids about Santa. You might start with a fib about Santa, but next it could be the Tooth Fairy, and after that, maybe it’s Superman, the Avengers and who knows what else.

More seriously: Your children will find out at some point, and when they do, it could cause a loss of trust that could be very unhealthy.

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Dear Dan,

When I was a teenager and my parents were in their 40s, they seemed old to me. Now I am almost 40, and I still feel young. Is it true that we stay young for longer these days? In the 21st century, when do people start feeling old?

—Nina

Despite our amazing advances, we don’t stay young for longer. The difference is your perspective. We look at ourselves as the standard, paying less attention to differences that we consider positive and overemphasizing ones we see as negative. As for your question about when we start feeling old, that’s simple: We start feeling old when we look forward more to a good night’s sleep than to a night of passion.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Funny Decisions, Security Insecurity, and Anthrax Horn

Jun 06

To celebrate today’s Ask Ariely column, I’d like to share the final Reader Response video. (But don’t worry, you can always check out the rest of the collection in this album.)

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

Is there any research on the relationship between humor and the quality of decision-making? Does humor make for better or worse decisions?

—Meher

Both. On the positive side, it has been shown that humor can improve creativity, which broadens the perspective from which we examine a problem and helps us to come up with novel solutions. In one study, researchers gave subjects a box of tacks, a set of matches and a candle. Their assigned task was to affix the candle to the wall so that it wouldn’t drip on the carpet when lighted. Subjects who had watched an amusing video clip before the task were more likely to recognize the solution: tack the box (which held the tacks) to the wall and use it as the candle’s base.

On the negative side, humor gets us to believe that things are safe, which can lead to risk-taking behavior. For example, recent research in the lab of Peter McGraw at the University of Colorado, Boulder, shows that humorous public service announcements are less effective than their traditional, nonhumorous scary counterparts. Why? Because the joking tone puts people at ease.

So as far we can tell, the effect of humor on the quality of decision-making is mixed. But using humor in an interpersonal relationship is certainly a good thing. It enhances liking and trust—and Prof. McGraw’s findings also suggest that humorous people are more attractive as lovers.

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Dear Dan,

My wife and I bought a new house and are fighting about the door locks. She wants to replace all of the locks, fearing that some people might have keys that would let them enter. I think that there are many ways a thief could break into the house without bothering with a single door, so why spend money to deal with that negligible part of the problem? It seems to me that her irrational insecurity blinds her from the truth. Any advice?

—Darin

Your wife’s fear has to do with the ease and vividness of imagining a bad outcome rather than the probability of something actually happening. After the attacks of 9/11, for example, we were all more afraid of flying, so some people switched to driving. As a consequence, over the following months, more people died from car accidents. The increase in the number of people dying from car accidents was much higher than the number of people dying on flights.

This aspect of emotions is also why we are more afraid of Ebola (which, thankfully, did not kill many people in the U.S.) than of the seasonal flu (which kills thousands of people every year). Given that the power of emotions is connected to their vividness, it is only partially useful to try to counteract them by providing accurate information about probability. Sometimes it is better just to try to deal with our emotions more directly.

Your wife’s fear may not be rational, but neither is your refusal to take such a small action to make her less worried. Why not use this as an opportunity to look at all the new locking technologies out there (some of them are really interesting). You could turn replacing the locks into a fun activity for yourself.

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Dear Dan,

Is there a way to use behavioral economics to stop rhino poaching? Some people believe that consuming rhino horn cures a range of ailments, and though this is entirely mythological, it is hard to get them to change their minds about its supposed health benefits. Can you think of a way to undermine this market?

—Veronica

Sadly, it is very difficult to use information or experience to counteract such mythical beliefs. The only way to fight them is with other beliefs. One approach would be take advantage of the widespread myth about the link between rhino horn and anthrax, and work hard to propagate this false belief. People might still believe in the healing power of rhino horn, but their fear of anthrax might overpower it.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Reader Response: Day 16

Jun 05

Looking to reinvigorate your love life? Read Irrationally Yours.

Irrationally Yours,

Dan Ariely

Reader Response: Day 15

Jun 03

Like this reviewer, you may discover some untapped talents after reading Irrationally Yours.

Irrationally Yours,

Dan Ariely

Reader Response: Day 14

Jun 01

After reading Irrationally Yours, this entrepreneur is finally able to make her mark.

Irrationally Yours,

Dan Ariely

Reader Response: Day 13

May 30

On lucky day 13, listen to this gentleman reader’s turnaround story.

Irrationally Yours,

Dan Ariely

Reader Response: Day 12

May 28

Hear her story on an open door policy below, and check out more reader responses in this album.

Irrationally Yours,

Dan Ariely

Reader Response: Day 11

May 26

This reader got lucky after reading Irrationally Yours. Maybe you can get lucky too!

Irrationally Yours,

Dan Ariely

Review of Irrationally yours (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

May 25

`IRRATIONALLY YOURS’ DELIVERS CLEVER ADVICE WRAPPED IN HUMOR
BY CHRISTINA LEDBETTER
ASSOCIATED PRESS

In his compilation of articles from his Wall Street Journal column, “Ask Ariely,” Dan Ariely wraps in a clever bow all the questions we’ve ever wanted answered concerning the behavioral intricacies that dictate the decisions we make.

He offers extremely practical advice, like babysitting friends’ children for an entire week to better estimate the costs and benefits of having children, in addition to brain-stretching teasers like how to choose the least used bathroom stall (it’s the one furthest from the door).

As always, Ariely’s intelligence is swathed in humility and charm. Bolstering his already likable writing style are cartoons by the talented William Haefeli, which help to humorously drive home Ariely’s points.

While “Irrationally Yours” offers some tangible steps on how one can stick to a diet or have a better time vacationing, it also offers something more. For example, in one piece we learn exactly why long commutes are so hard on us (in a word, unpredictability). In another, we learn how to feel better about ourselves in the midst of that traffic (in another word, altruism). On one page he offers concrete solutions, and on another, a different way to think about the problem in the first place, therefore minimizing our dissatisfaction.

Some answers are very insightful, with an added dose of humor. A few land solidly on the witty side and offer little sound advice. However, it’s this mix of academics and laughs that makes the book not only useful, but also enjoyable. Without the drawings and one-off jokey answers, “Irrationally Yours” could prove an information overload for someone seeking real decision-making help. But combine Ariely’s obvious intellect with funny quips and whip-smart cartoons, and you have a read that could lightheartedly change your life.

So for those less interested in a detailed write-up of lengthy experiments conducted using the scientific method and more interested in the conclusions those experiments deliver, Ariely’s words will offer high quality rationality with a quick pace. There is even a section providing insight about the best way to recommend a book. Taking a cue from Ariely himself, let’s just say heightened expectations are a safe bet this time.

Ask Ariely: On Risky Questionnaires, Great Expectations, and Victims of Piracy

May 23

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

This week, in celebration of my new book Irrationally Yours (which is based on this column), I’d like to share some feedback that I received from a reader. Please enjoy the video.

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Dear Dan,

I am ready to start investing for my retirement, but I’m struggling with those risk questionnaires. I’m not sure that I really know any of the answers. The results show that I’m somewhat conservative, but I don’t trust their conclusions. Any advice? 

—Rick

Deciding how much risk to stomach in your investment plans is a huge decision that will have a major impact on your savings and ability to retire. AND I don’t think you should base that big decision on your response to some risk-assessment questionnaire. The questions in most of these risk-attitude-assessment tools are about feelings, but you should focus on how much money you’ll need to retire and the quality of life you would have under different investment scenarios. Let’s just assume that you hate the feeling of losing. So what? Should we doom you to a life of poverty just because you feel bad when you lose money? My advice: Figure out how your life might look like with various investment approaches, figure out which tradeoffs you are (and aren’t) willing to make and plan your investments accordingly. Meanwhile, you can deal with your fear of risk directly. Learn yoga, meditate, take some medication, avoid looking at your portfolio more than twice a year—do whatever you need to deal with your emotions, but make sure that doesn’t interfere with the way you decide to invest.

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Dear Dan,

The other day, I ordered a new drink, a “London Fog tea latte,” at a local café. It arrived on the counter in a porcelain teacup with a saucer, and four lavender seeds were arranged in a fleur-de-lis at the center of the froth. The barista gave me a bestowing nod. It was the best tea latte I’d ever tasted; I found myself saying “Mmm” before the cup even reached my lips. Do our expectations actually affect how things taste to us? 

—Chelsea 

For sure. In an experiment we conducted about ten years ago at MIT, we gave the students two small beer samples and asked them to pick the one they wanted a full glass of. One sample was just plain beer, but the other sample was a regular beer plus some balsamic vinegar. We didn’t tell some students about the special ingredient, and they liked the beer with the dark additive. But when we told our tasters about the vinegar, their expectations kicked in; they expected to hate it and sure enough, they did. Such results show that expectations do indeed change what we like. More important, they show us that expectations are a fascinating interplay between our brain and our mind. We are always trying to predict the future and prepare for it. As our body changes to accommodate to the anticipated experience, it also makes those anticipations more likely to materialize. This is why expectations can change our actual experience—and why we should embrace them as much as we can. (My next answer, by the way, is going to be particularly insightful. Wait 30 seconds, and read on.)

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Dear Dan,

My nephew has been downloading music and movies illegally from the Internet. How can I get him to respect intellectual-property rights without sounding self-righteous? 

—Patricia 

My own view on illegal downloads was deeply modified the day that my book on dishonesty was published—when I learned that it had been illegally downloaded more than 20,000 times from one website. (The irony did not escape me.) My advice? Get your nephew to create something and then, without him knowing, put it online and download it many, many times. I suspect that will make it much harder for him to keep up his blithe attitude toward piracy.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

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